The videogame industry makes more than $30
billion a year — a tribute to the increasing popularity and
realism of video gaming. One of the most popular games in recent
years has been “The Sims,” which when played online,
provides gamers with a virtual online world where thousands of real
people interact with each other in a world that simulates reality.
Unfortunately, the simulation has managed to drag along many of the
more unpleasant aspects of society. In an effort to report and
inform on the seedier side of “The Sims,” philosophy
Prof. Peter Ludlow has touched off a debate about online free
speech — one of the few spaces in which the public is still
able to exercise its First Amendment rights.

Mira Levitan

As Ludlow began researching the socioeconomic structures of
online gaming communities, he became familiar with a number of the
interesting and highly suspect elements of the game. He observed
that the fake computer money in the game has a real exchange rate
in U.S. dollars. Whether through an online currency exchange or
eBay, players can trade real money for fake money, which in turn
can be spent in the game on virtually anything. And just as reality
does, “The Sims” has its dark side. Ludlow observed and
reported on his website a variety of seedier elements within
“The Sims,” such as sado-masochism houses and
prostitution rings, where players can pay a prostitute in the game
to have cyber sex with his or her character.

In response, Electronic Arts, the company that created,
distributes and owns the rights to “The Sims,” recently
terminated Ludlow’s account. EA claims that Ludlow violated
the terms of service by providing links to commercial sites outside
the game on his website. Ludlow, however, claims that this
“was clearly censorship.” He believes that his account
was terminated because his website reported on aspects of the game
that the EA did not want to see exposed.

What has arisen is a debate on whether software companies should
be allowed to terminate customers’ accounts when things they
say or write are deemed objectionable. Broadly, public forums and
other places of free expression have dwindled since the founding of
our country. There is a serious shortage of public places where
people can congregate and freely exchange information. Online games
like “The Sims” may have been created and operated as
private ventures, but when thousands of people are living, playing
and communicating in a space, online or otherwise, it is a new
entity — no longer a private website. While Electronic Arts
is certainly entitled to reap the monetary benefits of its
investment, it must also respect the rights of individuals like
Ludlow to exercise their right to free speech. It’s time to
start considering the future of online communities. There are some
rights that simply cannot be signed away.

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